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I am considering moving institutions (from a one UK University to another), but I am concerned about what Intellectual Property (IP) rights my current institution may retain. Some of my PhD students, one of whom has been funded by my university directly, would move with me, or at least I would like them to. I am also unclear about the rights they/I would have to the research they have already done. Their projects would naturally remain similar, but I see no obvious commercial potential, and have no intention of trying to find some.

My questions are:

  1. The University's policy is clear that they own all Intellectual Property I produce during my employment. I assume this can't apply to projects that have not got to the point of being protectable/tradeable but where one project begins and another ends is not always clear. Many of these projects naturally build on work I have published, or is in the process of being published. How can I tell/establish what exactly they have rights to?
  2. How do I 'leave' them with what they own so that I can make a clean break.
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    I'm confused, it seems like you are employed? Isn't there nothing on this topic in your employment contract?
    – user64845
    Jul 4, 2017 at 20:11
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    This sounds like the sort of thing that should be discussed with the department. You don't want problems years down the road when it turns out that research you have already started does have commercial value. Jul 5, 2017 at 0:14
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    There are two reasons why asking these questions from eg your uni is much better idea than here: 1) details always depend on university AND often on negotiation, 2) details may depend on very specifics of your research - if you are an engineer you most probably have other problems than a mathematician.
    – Greg
    Jul 5, 2017 at 0:48
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    My issue is that I would not want to alert my department to the fact that I am considering leaving and so was hoping to obtain some general advice. Jul 5, 2017 at 7:06
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    Go consult a lawyer who does IP law. This is going to be very fact specific and contract specific.
    – JoshuaZ
    Dec 28, 2018 at 15:39

3 Answers 3

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In general you should be fine:

  • Your research is published, so everyone (including you) can build upon it.
  • You do not have any patents (which would remain at the university)

The only thing might be software written at your institution or hardware built during your work. Those remain at the university as long as you do not agree on otherwise. But usually, one becomes smarter over time so this might be a good point in time to re-implement some stuff...

On the other hand, your work might be worthless for your university when you are not there - e.g. no one will digg into foreign research code... So you should have a good position for negotiations.

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    You seem to be giving a legal opinion. I don't think that is proper here. Are you a qualified UK lawyer?
    – Buffy
    Dec 28, 2018 at 14:59
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    @Buffy: There is nothing definite in the answer (everything has shoulds, mights, and similar). Also, the entire concept of giving opinion on legal questions being illegal is limited to the US, as far as I know, and even there this is probably far from problematic. (If not, please cite a respective law that says otherwise.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    Dec 28, 2018 at 17:41
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    @Wrzlprmft, I don't claim it is illegal, just unwise. If the advice is taken and turns out to be wrong, the OP will be the one that suffers, not the person giving the bad advice.
    – Buffy
    Dec 28, 2018 at 17:44
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    @Buffy: Can you tell me one statement of which you think it might be unvalid? And as Wrzlprmft already noted: There are enough should in the text to indicate that the real situation might be different since we do not know the specifics of this university and the work involved. I'm sure the OP can put the answer in the right context and will ask a lawyer if needed.
    – OBu
    Dec 28, 2018 at 19:04
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    You leave the impression that there are few issues. I disagree. The OP says the university claims rights. Depending on the level of insistence they have it could be a serious issue. Work in progress? Courseware? Lab procedures? There are a lot of things potentially other than already published papers, patents, and software. My first line would be "In general, you need to know more, both from the university and their lawyers." and NOT, "you should be fine."
    – Buffy
    Dec 28, 2018 at 19:33
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Read the contracts and policies. If the existing contracts and policies are not answering your questions, then this is something you cannot resolve. It is up to the universities to work out between them how to divide intellectual property.

If the intellectual property is very valuable, the lawyers of the two universities will negotiate a deal. Nobody will want to license something if the owner of the rights is uncertain. As a result, the universities will be motivated to cooperate. Arranging this is not the author/inventor's responsibility.

If the intellectual property is not valuable, then so long as you are honest and open about what is going on I doubt you will have any problems.

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  • Beware that the contracts and policies may contridict each other and in the case of the policies, themselves. It may need a lawyer to work out what the actual grant is in that case if you are unwilling to talk to the university. Sep 22, 2023 at 14:24
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I think regarding publications, as soon as you include the affiliation of the old uni on publications whose work has started during your employment there it should be fine. If there are patents involved things might get more complicated.

What other issues were you thinking about?

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  • I wonder, can the people who voted negative in this answer please explain what is wrong with what is stated here? Apr 28, 2023 at 22:03

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